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Federalism in Greek Antiquity

Hans Beck, Peter Funke (eds): Federalism in Greek Antiquity. Cambridge (Cambridge UP) 2014.

* Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SRG)

* Cluster of Excellence 'Religion and Politics', Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster

Ancient Greek federalism continues to be a key topic in Classical scholarship. Over the past two decades, all major Greek federal states have received monographic studies that elucidate the workings of integration. Beyond such regional accounts, a fair amount of comparative research has been done. This includes studies on the organization of federal states, the interaction between the city-states and leagues, regional identities and ideological platforms for integration, and federal thinking in Greek political theory. Our project combines those various approaches and puts them into the coherent perspective of an all new standard reference work. In doing so, it seeks to replace the largely outdated, but–due to a lack of alternatives–still widely cited work by J.A.O. Larsen, Greek Federal States (Oxford UP, 1968). 

The breakdown of chapters reflects the conceptual advances that have led to a new understanding of federal integration in Greece. In particular, it attests to the recent intensification of knowledge in the fields of interstate relations and federal thought and theory. But the most important stimulus comes from the current debate on ethnicity and its diverse manifestations. In short, scholars have argued convincingly that the identities of the branches of the Greek community, such as the Boeotians, Arcadians or Aetolians are to be regarded as essentially changing, flexible, negotiable and at times even as relatively late constructs rather than as relics of a tribal past. Recent ethnos studies have thus focused on the process by which tribes such as the Achaeans or Arcadians were establishing a regional identity through the creation of common identity and alterity towards other ethnē. This tribal commonness as reflected in regional myths, heroic genealogies, and material culture has been detected as major tool of integration. Our project offers the first full-fledged comparative analysis of these aspects.

Furthermore, we recognize the co-existence of tribal organizations and emerging polis-organizations. Many federal states comprised poleis and non-polis members such as smaller tribes or villages. The immediate implication is that the political structures of Greek federal states are conceived as being more flexible than previously suggested. Patterns of organization vary not only from koinon to koinon, but might also present a mixture of tribal- and federal-structures within one and the same league. This raises the crucial question as to how independent poleis, komai, and other subunits were formally integrated. It is well known that some koina operated on the basis of artificial subdivisions of the federal territory that provided a conversion table for proportional representation. Other leagues were run by a system of direct assemblies; others still by both, proportional representation and primary assemblies. It follows that artificial subdivisions of the territory cannot be considered as decisive when one approaches Greek federalism. But it must be stressed that recent research does in fact benefit from questions on territoriality and concepts of space. In what one might call a test-case, it has been demonstrated for the League of Phocis how a landscape was gradually perceived as a focal point of regional identity, how its political penetration evolved, and how the interaction of both influenced the integration of different units–cities, villages, and subtribes–into a larger political community. The role of space, territoriality, and liminality for an understanding of early features of federalism has thus become clear. As far as federal integration is concerned, this approach also helps to elucidate the heterogeneity of the member states in this league and the different degrees of their dependencies.

Scholarly perceptions of Greek federalism have changed dramatically over the past decades. The views prevailing in the early twentieth century were of destruction and defeat, since federalism failed to unite the Greek poleis against Philip of Macedon. In the 1960s, this was addressed from perspectives such as nuclear balance and hegemonic rivalry. The present debate–although this may well be mere coincidence–is dominated by paradigms such as regional identity, ethnicity and a re-conceptualization of interstate affairs. The 'New Larsen' dismisses universally applicable models of federalism. It sheds light on the fascinating variety of federal arrangements in ancient Greece. Doing so, it offers a long awaited synthesis that provides the reader with a balanced account on a key topic in Classical Studies.